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Home > News > Columnists > David Buhril

Manipur polls: The issues at stake

February 08, 2007

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Manipur Chief Minister Okram Ibobi Singh faces a daunting challenge in the February elections to elect the ninth Manipur Legislative Assembly.

Interestingly, Ibobi Singh is the first chief minister in the history of Manipur to complete a full five-year term (2002-2007). Despite over 400 cases of bloody violence in the state in the last four years, Ibobi has managed to hold on to the reins of power.

In one sense Ibobi is a hero of Manipur politics. However, the reason behind his unbroken five-year tenure is nothing extraordinary or something that that he or his Congress party can boast of or use as an election plank. Ibobi has been the most controversial chief minister, whose tenure has seen many bandhs, agitations and blockades in the insurgency-torn state.

Ibobi recently faced Election Commission scrutiny after a picture of him offering two Rs 100 notes to an elderly woman was splashed on the front page of Imphal's daily papers.

The EC has now accepted his explanation that the money had nothing to do with the election but was an offering for a religious ceremony due at the woman's home, which is customary practice in Meitei society to which he belongs.

However, there is more trouble brewing for the chief minister. The outlawed United National Liberation Front has alleged that Ibobi Singh has been swindling huge amounts of development funds meant for the state while blaming underground groups. The UNLF, in a press statement, said the group`s Central Special Force, in the course of an investigation, has unearthed a specific case where more that Rs 5 crore worth of development funds were siphoned off through the state Public Works Department by Ibobi Singh and his close confidants in the form of Akash Bills for use in the forthcoming elections. The statement said most of money has been recovered by the UNLF.

The UNLF charged that Ibobi Singh, in collusion with minister Govindas Konthoujam, siphoned off the money in October last year by forcing PWD`s engineers to prepare Akash Bills for the amount. The statement said the officials and ministers concerned have since confessed to the act, and handed over about Rs 4.8 crore to the UNLF.

The UNLF claimed it is public knowledge that Ibobi has been taking 10-15 per cent of all development funds and added that the plundering has intensified with the elections approaching.

Ibobi is also already bearing the brunt of the fallout of the unpopular Armed Forces Special Power Act, which is the main election issue for the opposition parties -- the Manipur People's Party and the Nationalist Congress Party.

Though the politics of Manipur are extremely polarised, all parties are championing for the repeal of AFSPA. The Manipur People's Party has emerged as a main challenger to the Congress in the valley. The MPP today is primarily a valley-based party, with a support base among the Meiteis. However, the Congress remains a formidable adversary.

AFSPA has, once again, become the most contentious issue in this election. As expected, every political party has promised to repeal AFSPA if elected to power. All political parties are unanimous in their stand that the Act would cease to exist by the time the assembly takes shape.

Despite promising the removal of AFSPA, none of the political parties have chalked out a blueprint to remove the Act. The contesting politicians seem to have forgotten that AFSPA is an offshoot of a bigger issue that has gripped the region. Despite the promise, it is doubtful if the politicians will be able to stick to it once the election is over.

With the elections looming, several Naga MLAs from the Naga districts of Manipur resigned. The move was initiated by Federal Party of Manipur legislators Henty Paotei and Samuel Jendai. BJP legislators Danny Shaiza and B D Behring followed and even  Wungnaoshang Keishing of the Congress quit. Jendai, Paotei and Shaiza said their resignations were to show solidarity to the ongoing talks between the central government and Naga leaders. Behring and Keishing went a step further and accused the ruling Congress of being anti-tribal.

The resignations came in the wake of a campaign by the United Naga Council barring Naga candidates for contesting on tickets of any 'political party'. This time the Nagas in Manipur plan to field only independent candidates. In that case it will be very difficult for any political party to win in any 'Naga' constituency.  The UNC, though not a registered political party, has set up 11 independent candidates.

The UNC has launched several peaceful non-cooperation movements against the government of Manipur in the pursuit of integrating Naga-inhabited areas. The UNC has been demanding that the Naga peace process be taken to an "acceptable and honourable settlement." The UNC has been campaigning in all the sub-divisions of Chandel, Tamenglong, Senapati and Ukhrul for democratic electoral participation with strict guidelines for all Naga candidates.

At the same time, the UNC has been appealing to Naga voters to choose and elect only those candidates who have no party affiliation, who enjoy the confidence of the people, who are God fearing and subscribe to the Naga People Convention declaration to fulfil the democratic aspiration of the Naga people for unification the Naga homeland, to support the ongoing government-Naga political dialogue, to provide leadership to society in nation building and to promote the common interest of all ethnic communities in the state.

The UNC ensured that all candidates signed an agreement along with their relatives and family members. UNC President Paul Leo said during campaigning that the reason for participating in this election was to expedite and support the Naga peace process.            

While the politicians make big promises, the people's quest for peace, security, safe drinking power, regular electricity, roads and other basic amenities continues.

While welfare and development continues to remain elusive, people will make their way to the ballot boxes not sure whether the politicians have the capacity to deliver on their promises.

David Buhril, a native of Manipur, is a research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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